old school vs modern bodybuilding

Old school Bodybuilding vs Modern: a steroid issue?

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Old school Bodybuilding vs Modern: a steroid issue?

It’s easy to be nostalgic about the “golden era” of bodybuilding.

Looking back provides us with a time when things were a bit simpler. We all like to put on our rose tinted glasses and cult classics like pumping iron make it easier to travel back in time.

We get to look at the days when bodybuilding had just broken into the public with guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno competing for the Olympia. Back when the average person had no idea what a bodybuilder was – and the Olympia wasn’t such a huge deal.

When I’m not feeling enthusiastic about training, sometimes I’ll watch Lou Ferrigno makes these shoulder presses look suffering on his way to stage to face Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Everyone seems to be a pro in modern bodybuilding – and that’s a good thing. Who doesn’t want to see bodybuilders making a living off their dedication?

But in the golden days, you could name every professional because they were the top 5-10 guys. Now it seems like everyone on Instagram has their pro card and only the most dedicated bodybuilding fans (usually competitors themselves) know the scene.

The sad part of this is that the scene has become further removed from the rest of us. These people come and go on a daily basis and icons of bodybuilding are few and far between.

Serge Nubret in an interview for bodybuilding.com has let us felt that he regrets where bodybuilding was heading:

serge nubret talking about modern bodybuilding

Why did this change happen? What’s going on with bodybuilding and how has it changed since the 70s and 80s?So what is the reason for such a change?

Steroid abuse changed old-school bodybuilding

If you’ve paid attention to bodybuilding over the past few decades, you’ll see a huge change in the way that bodybuilders look and the way that they train. Their condition is more hit and miss, with a greater focus on sheer mass.

The “grainy” look has become the new gold standard for bodybuilders, and some of the main aspects of golden era bodybuilding – like the vacuum – have almost completely disappeared from the stage.

The increased role of steroids in bodybuilding and, more recently, SARMs has had a huge effect on the competitive atmosphere. The inclusion of dangerous substances like insulin and growth hormone in the standard bodybuilding steroid stack has changed the risks associated with the sport as well as the aesthetic that bodybuilders are aiming at.

I’m going to try and outline – in a rather whimsical way – what’s changed since the golden era. I’m sure someone is going to be offensive to some people, but I think I’m speaking for a lot of the newer generation of bodybuilding fans – and speaking to a lot of our concerns!

The golden era is being missed

Do you miss the golden age bodybuilders and their baggy clothes? 

I’m not here to promote any sort of drug use, but it’s obviously been a part of bodybuilding since it reached the mainstream. The 70s weren’t without their share of steroids but it’s still hard to deny that watching old-school bodybuilders like Arnold SchwarzeneggerLee Priest or Flex Wheeler in their prime is super enjoyable.

It’s probably not to everyone’s taste and even if you are not a fan of enhanced bodybuilding, you have to recognize that not only were these physiques impressive, but they were working super hard and the drugs were used in relative moderation (still a lot, but it was not overly abused at the time).

arnold schwarzenegger back pose

The change has been significant across the range of bodybuilding categories. If you’re familiar with the more honest supersized bodybuilders, who talk about their steroid routines, you’ll see the amount this has changed.

Guys like Bostin Loyd are open about their use and their stacks, and it’s crazy to see the sheer quantities these guys have used and recommended in the past. It’s also important to note that the range between what guys like Arnold were using compared to some amateur bodybuilders today is significant.

There are guys who aren’t even competing who are using more drugs than the best bodybuilders in the world a few decades ago!

Everyone kept their drug us low – and low key – during the golden age.

Bodybuilders have used drugs since those drugs first became available, but they understood that too much discussion of drugs was a bad move for the younger generations. There was never a time when Arnold wanted to popularise the drugs he was taking – and everything was a very “need to know basis”.

The use of drugs in bodybuilding is only becoming more common and more visible. This is fine for those who are honest about their drug use, but it does make me wonder if new bodybuilders are turned onto drugs earlier on due to the availability and “coolness” of the drugs.

Unfortunately, we might have to blame the internet and Instagram which are massively contributing to the increase in steroid abuse in the modern-day fitness industry.

Old school bodybuilders are right, but they can’t say much

It’s easy to look at old-school bodybuilders and blame them for the drug abuse in modern bodybuilding. It’s easy to see why: they used to use drugs, and now they use more drugs, so is it really anyone’s fault but the guys who started it?

After all, modern bodybuilding has seen a huge boost in popularity, but these guys still can’t talk about their drug use when their fame, career, and sponsorship money are all riding on it. It’s illegal to use drugs in the United States, where the Olympia is held and many bodybuilders live, which makes it a very difficult topic to talk about.

These old school bodybuilders are not wrong though, the problem is that they actually can’t say anything because they used it too! Arnold has not spoken about drug-testing since the first time he did it, and it’s because this topic is so taboo.

What they’re trying to say is that the levels of drug involvement in the sport are increasing, the drugs themselves are more dangerous, and guys are more at-risk than ever.

This has had some real public spectacle problems for bodybuilders. The increased sightings of Palumboism on stage – a distended gut due to drug use – and a change of public perception with the “mass monster” era. It’s safe to say that bodybuilding culture now doesn’t actually rely on bodybuilding competitions anymore but is fed by a focus on “aesthetics” – supported by ‘classic’ and ‘physique’ categories.

There is drug-abuse more than ever and on a large scale, bodybuilders seem to not work as hard as in the past. A lot of old-school bodybuilders have been quoted on this kind of problem – just like Serge Nubret – and Insulin and growth hormones might be at the forefront of this “optics” problem.

Why did old-school bodybuilders look better? 

Modern bodybuilding: too much drugs and less conditioning?

A professional bodybuilder called John Meadows recently discussed that the drugs bodybuilders are using – and the amounts they prefer – are changing the sport.

bubble gut in modern bodybuilding

He says that the change from lean to “grainy” has been driven by people using insulin and growth hormone, eating far more to compensate, and abusing diuretics have all led to a different type of stage condition. The changes in the form of muscle separation and striation have fundamentally changed what a bodybuilder looks like.

John is very active on Youtube and has great videos. He always acknowledges natural bodybuilders in the industry and provides them with great tips, so you might want to check out his channel.

 Not only have the proportions of bodybuilders changed – from the V taper to the X taper – but the conditioning isn’t the same. We’ve seen some great examples from guys like Phil Heath lately, but these are the exception to the rule in a culture where bigger comes at the cost of better conditioning.

This is why sometimes it is not always the biggest competitor who wins, it’s also the one in the best condition or with best genetics/muscle insertions. I think this is great, because it might start to shift us back towards a more balanced approach to bodybuilding.

The problem isn’t quite solved, the biggest guys are often still the winners on size alone, but I’m hopeful that we’ll see a return to conditioning as a focus in the future. A modern Frank Zane could steal the show, after all!

Modern bodybuilding = psychology of crowds?

When there’s an advantage in any area of human effort, it starts to escalate quickly. If you’re in a competition, every advantage is going to be explored and the guys who are least worried about using those advantages are going to progress the fastest and push the limits.

It’s not optional to use drugs like insulin and growth hormone in men’s bodybuilding open classes. You know your opponent is going to take them, and then they’ve got a huge advantage over you in size. You get into a steroid “arms race” to become the biggest guy, whatever it costs.

That is when bodybuilders began to understand that they had to start abusing them. It led to the modern bodybuilding attitude – “who is the biggest freak out there?” – who is going to take the most drugs?

Markus Ruhl freaky bodybuilder from the 90s
Markus Ruhl – huge bodybuilder from the 90s

It also appears that this attitude doesn’t really appeal to the majority of spectators either. The average fan of physique training doesn’t want to look like Ronnie Coleman, they want to look like a fitness model.

Bodybuilding is a niche sport for a very specific group of people – and the further those monsters get from the average Joe, the more it becomes spectacle. This is why categories like classic bodybuilding and physique are seeing so much growth – and why those guys and girls are seeing the best growth in their profits!

It’s also led to the point where we’re saturated. The market is full of huge bodybuilders competing against other huge bodybuilders. It’s very rare that guys get to stand out on size alone. Big Ramy, Ronnie Coleman, and Kai Greene have done it, but the dominance of a guy like Phil Heath tells us that being the biggest guy just isn’t as impressive anymore.

The popularity of mass monsters came because they were growing so rapidly and guys like Dorian Yates were so much bigger than their competitors. Now, you’re not seeing those same differences between guys where one competitor is so clearly ahead.

It’s up to you what aesthetic you prefer – classical or modern – and it’s great to see guys pushing limits. I might sound nostalgic, but the condition of the modern bodybuilder has to be offset against the enormous size and effects of drug use like huge waists and a totally different set of proportions.

The fact that classical bodybuilding exists – as a category by itself – shows that I’m not the only one that feels this way!

Good old Eugene Sandow would certainly be surprised of the way bodybuilding has evolved these days!

eugene sandow posing

This guy was a beast! Natural power!

Fake tan, what’s with all the fake tan? (and bad lighting…)

Just like steroids developing over time, the fake tan approach of modern bodybuilders is starting to backfire, too.

Great lighting and good tan help to define muscles, but they are also starting to cover up the actual conditioning that a bodybuilder is bringing to the stage. It’s hard to understand this kind of choice. Across the board, my feeling is that bodybuilding is going too far with everything just to be more extreme – without producing better bodies!

fake tan and bad lighting in bodybuilding

Everyone is a professional bodybuilder

Old-school bodybuilders must be surprised at how many pros we have these days.

There are a lot of people who seem to have their professional cards now and Instagram is a massive pro-card portfolio with bodybuilders that aren’t standing out from one another. Back in the day, most bodybuilders would stand out for their exceptional biceps, or chest, aesthetics, but it seems like these kinds of defining factors are slowly becoming less relevant as bodybuilders are all enormous.

Today the increase of steroid use are mostly showing us competitors with 3D shoulders and ripped physiques, which were uncommon even a decade ago. These people are usually driven by advertising – a keto e-book (terrible idea for long-term bodybuilding) and an affiliate link for some fitness equipment you’ll never need. 


Ok, maybe that was exaggerated, but we both know you’ve seen at least a few examples of that kind of behaviour. Drugs are certainly a big factor. A lot of these pro-bodybuilders come as they go – quickly – which is strange.

The last critique: judging is poor

Is bodybuilding judging all politics? It certainly seems that way more and more as the years go by.

It is not rare to see some people with exceptional shapes and conditioning lose to others with an objectively worse physique. Posing certainly has a role, as does confidence on stage, but sometimes none of this can explain away bad judging decisions. There have been more than a few outrageous calls in the past decade.

I can’t even imagine what this must be like for the men and women on stage. Imagine you’ve spent your life building muscle mass – and then spent 5 months cutting down on a religiously-devoted diet and working out to the letter – only to lose for political reasons or based on your social media popularity.

That was the case for Igor, a Youtuber who saw who he lost to at his competition. He felt like he was one of the victims of that curse – and it’s easy to see why when you compare his condition and performance to some of his competitors.

Bodybuilding can get quite unfair!


Why not just bring it back to where it all started? – naturally.

That’s what I’m about, and it’s why natural flex exists. I think the solution to these problems is to really get behind natural, drug-tested bodybuilding and develop a new bodybuilding culture that embraces all of the better habits for competitors and judges alike.

The idea is simple – we make bodybuilding better by learning how to become a great natural bodybuilder! Maybe you could be the next star to bring natural bodybuilding into the limelight, just like Arnold brought old-school bodybuilding to the people!

If that’s your case, you can get started with the Beginner’s guide to natural bodybuilding!

Any questions? Feel free to leave one in the comments!